Gertrude Crain: Chairman, Adventurer, Role Model, Mom

Called Herself 'Keeper of the Flame' But She Was So Much More

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My mother, Gertrude R. Crain (the R stands for Ramsay, which is my real first name and the first name of one of my granddaughters), was a founding member of the Committee of 200, a group of women business owners. And I know how pleased she'd be to be named to an even more select group, the 100 Most Influential Women in Advertising.

Gertrude Crain (r.) and Gloria Scoby take to the skies.
Gertrude Crain (r.) and Gloria Scoby take to the skies.
My mom was a longtime treasurer of Crain Communications before becoming chairman from 1973 to 1996, when she passed away at the age of 85. She assumed the title from my dad, G.D. Crain Jr., the founder of our company, after he died.

Mom liked to think of herself as "the keeper of the flame," but she was so much more.

She led our company during some exciting years. Mom loved mixing it up with our employees, and I daresay they loved having her around. She laughed with them, she cried with them, and she celebrated the milestones of their lives with them. It was she who made our family company a real family.

Serious side
Mom was also admired and respected outside our company, and she was never shy about taking a stand on the issues of the day that were important to her, such as violence on TV. At a ceremony at the University of Utah's communications department, where she received the Meritorious Service Award, Mom said: "Because of television's pervasiveness and influence, I just can't find it within myself to believe that what I see on television these days reflects a healthy situation for our country. Americans are being brutalized by a depiction of pathological behavior on the home screen."

That was her serious side. But she also loved parties, and one of the many festive occasions she attended was Malcolm Forbes' famous Moroccan birthday bash. In an article in Working Woman, Mr. Forbes stated that "Gertrude Crain seems to fulfill her authority with a twinkle in her eye. She's a very dynamic, dedicated, intelligent, good-humored lady."

She was game for almost any new experience. The publisher of our consumer magazine, Autoweek, arranged for her to accompany race-car driver Tim Richmond when he drove seven laps around the Charlotte Motor Speedway, at speeds of almost 160 mph. The syndicated TV show "P.M. Magazine" did a segment on the event, titling it "Gutsy Grandma."

Another time, the Navy invited a Who's Who of Chicago CEOs to a three-day fleet orientation out of Glenview Naval Air Station. My mom was there and took off in a fighter jet from an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, accompanied by longtime Crain executive Gloria Scoby.

As Gloria recounts the adventure, "She was the first to raise her hand -- and volunteered me to go as well.

"There are two things that stay with me today from that trip in 1993," Gloria says. "First, Gertrude yelling, "One more time!' after doing a tail-hook landing on an aircraft carrier, and second, watching her unpack her trip clothes, which included her 4-inch green suede high heels. From that point on, we shared my clothes. Probably a good time to mention that I was 5 inches taller. No matter. Like everything else in her life, she just rolled up her pants and got the job done!"

'High-wire act'
Gloria remembers working for Mom as a "high-wire act with a net. She was tough but fair, honest to a fault, had a highly evolved sense of fairness but most importantly always knew the right thing to do. She was a role model for me and all the women in our company because she was a woman who celebrated her femininity, she was a mom ... and she ran a company."

My mom and dad made a great team. She was working for the VP of sales of NBC Radio in New York when she met Dad. For some reason, he had all kinds of business reasons to visit the NBC office after that . They were married in 1936. (He was 25 years older than she, but she thought he was much younger. When she discovered their age difference, it was too late -- she had already fallen in love with him.)

Mom spent her early years of marriage raising my brother, Keith, and me, but she still found time to aid several charities and spend a day or two at the office every week. When Mom asked her husband who was managing our profit-sharing and pension plans, Dad said, "Why don't you do it?" And she did, getting us a very good return on our money. She also signed all the expense checks, and the stories are legion how she would call employees wanting to know what such and such expense was. Dad was a big-picture guy; Mom was a detail person.

Becoming chairman
In the early "70s when Dad no longer came to work every day, Mom started a daily office routine, and it was only natural that we elected her chairman when Dad died. 

When they were together, Mom was perfectly content to bask in my dad's limelight. But when she became chairman, she became her own person. She didn't try to call all the shots, but she always made damn sure Keith and I had good reasons for our decisions. I used to give a speech about how we started Crain's Chicago Business. It went something like this: When I wanted to get approval for the publication, I marched into the office of the chairman of the board, and said, "I've got this great idea, Mom!"

I like the way Ad Age paid tribute to her when she passed away: "Gertrude Crain 's smile warmed hearts, lit up rooms, lifted spirits.

"Her loveliness and charm radiated from eyes a-twinkle with warmth, spirit and a delighted sense of adventure, fun, fair play and love.

"And her commitment to the values of this company, editorial excellence and corporate good citizenship was total."

My mom: a woman to fondly remember.

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